How to reconcile a love of gardening with severe fragrance allergies? Sensitivity to certain scents isn’t that unusual, and if it were merely a few things that send my histamine receptors into overdrive it wouldn’t be that bad. I’ve had allergies of one sort or another since birth; the only change over the years has been which ones and how bad. Seriously, you’d think that having gone through childhood being allergic to milk, eggs, wheat, citrus and chocolate – not to mention about two dozen environmental allergens – would have prepared me for anything!
It’s strange how things turn out. As I entered my teen years I outgrew the first three food allergies but then discovered that there was only one perfume that wouldn’t send me into a sneezing, coughing, itchy-eyed fit: Chant d’Aromes by Guerlain. I have no idea what was different about that particular formula but even so, I could only use the lighter ‘cologne’ version. At the same time my mom’s Chanel No.5 became pure olfactory poison. As the decades passed, ultimately everything in my environment needed to be fragrance-free: household cleaners, dishwashing liquid, laundry detergent, moisturizer, soap, sunblock, shampoo, you name it. Cosmetics of any sort had to hit the road also, because even the so-called hypoallergenic ones do have some level of odor, however faint. Finally, a permanent side effect of a year of chemo was that all of my existing allergies and sensitivities were ramped up to an even higher level than they’d ever been before (oh joy).
Complicating my problem is that due to another condition I cannot take any type of non-drowsy allergy medication, so allergen-avoidance has to be my #1 rule whenever possible (a philosophy with which all allergists concur.) I learned fairly quickly that there are certain flowers that are safe for me to have in the house but others will quickly produce misery.
For instance, white bearded iris cause no problems whatsoever but the yellow and pink ones start to moderately bother me after about 8-10 hours; perhaps the effect builds up over time. [All of the photos here were taken at my previous house/garden.]
However, blue and purple iris are banned from the house because their heavy (to my hypersensitive nose) grape-like fragrance rises to an intolerable level in only an hour or so.
Indoor tolerance of narcissi depends entirely on what they are. The fragrance of paperwhites (N. tazetta) literally makes me gag; even if I wasn’t allergic I’d avoid them. Jonquillas are borderline tolerable and as for the rest, pure whites and white-petaled varieties are ‘safe’ but the yellow ones are on a case-by-case basis. The doubles seem to have little or no fragrance and thus are safe. Poeticus, which are among my favorites, are entirely safe to have in the garden but they are problematic for me indoors.
Hyacinths are definitely a safe-outdoors/deadly-indoors flower. I will quickly be sneezing my head off in a house where there’s a potted hyacinth but have had multiple groups of them in all my gardens, even planted near the often-opened kitchen window, and I’m fine. Go figure.
Lilies indoors? Asiatics, yes; Orientals and Trumpets, no; as for the fragrant Asiatic/L. longiflorum hybrids, it depends on the variety. Anthers get trimmed off regardless, because of the pollen-stain problem, but Oriental lilies must also produce fragrance in their petals because the trimming doesn’t much affect the scent of those; the location of fragrance production can vary widely among different kinds of flowers. All lilies are fine in the garden. This photo shows a bonus Oriental that came with an order from Brent & Becky’s Bulbs; it smelled like a French bordello (not that I would know from experience) and heavily perfumed the entire half-acre garden, but I knew better than to ever bring a stem into the house!
Dianthus doesn’t even occasion a nose-twitch, either indoors or out – you’d think a scent that strong would knock me for a loop but oddly enough it doesn’t – but for heaven’s sake don’t bring any member of the daisy family into my house. All orchids are 100% safe and so are any of the shockingly-expensive tropicals such as Strelitzia and Banksia (do you think my fragrance sensitivity is cut-flower-price-dependent? Makes one wonder!)
Tulips are usually fine; although I can usually detect a very faint scent when passing close by a vase, it rarely triggers anything.
As for roses, well, to be honest I’ve never cared for them as cut flowers and so I haven’t had any in the house for decades; I only had one boyfriend who was inclined/could afford to send me roses, and that was before my allergies really went into high gear. In my previous garden I had the double mock orange Philadelphus ‘Bouquet Blanc’ which you’d think would send any fragrance-sensitive person running for the medicine cabinet, but again the open air and breezes were my friends.
I grew up loving the scent of honeysuckle and still do, which is why I kept making the maintenance mistake of planting at least one in each garden. Honeysuckle doesn’t bother me in the least (mind over histamine??) which is a very good thing because there’s nothing quite like the lovely scent of Lonicera fragrantissima at the tail end of a hellish winter. It’s too bad that the shrub itself looks so scruffy!
I should mention that there’s a difference between “allergy-friendly” and “fragrance-allergy-friendly”. Many plants fall into one category but not the other; some can be classified as both. But all those articles that talk about low-allergy cut flowers (e.g., for weddings) will only list flowers that are low in pollen… simply because for most people that’s what triggers their allergy. This is why you’ll find daffodils, iris, and certain roses on those allergy-friendly lists, and it’s true that those are low-pollen picks (as are the pollen-free lily varieties). However, because fragrance can be also produced in flower pistils and petals (depending on the plant) a pollen-free ”allergy friendly” flower can still cause misery in a person who is fragrance-sensitive. Roses are a great example: They produce one type of fragrance compound in their pollen, but much higher levels of different fragrance compounds are produced by the petals.
Speaking of cut flowers, one of my very favorites – Eustoma grandiflorum, a/k/a lisianthus – is both low-pollen and fragrance-free. Now if only it wasn’t so darn fussy and tricky to grow from seed…!!!
(September 2021 update: For a look at the fragrance-free products that have become part of my life, check my new post on that subject.)